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Black History in Canada until 1900

Black people have lived in Canada since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement. Although historically very few arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in Africa, the term "African Canadian" is used to identify all descendants of Africa regardless of their place of birth. “Black Canadian” is also used as a more general term. The earliest arrivals were enslaved people brought from New England or the West Indies. Between 1763 and 1900, most Black migrants to Canada were fleeing enslavement in the US. (See also Black Enslavement in Canada.)

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William Pearly Oliver

William Pearly Oliver, CM, minister, army chaplain and community organizer (born 11 February 1912 in Wolfville, Nova Scotia; died 26 May 1989 in Lucasville). Oliver was a social activist, educator and minister. He cofounded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) and the Black United Front (BUF). He was also instrumental in the creation of the Black Cultural Society and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.

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Denis Côté

Denis Côté, writer, producer, director, critic (born 16 November 1973 in Grand Falls, NB). Filmmaker Denis Côté has won acclaim and awards in Canada and internationally for his independent features and documentaries. He is known as an uncompromising and prolific maverick who challenges audiences rather than offering crystal clear, classically structured narratives. A former film critic, Côté writes, directs and produces films that are starkly minimalist, strangely poetic, dryly funny and thematically enigmatic. His deadpan style and marginalized characters have earned him an international reputation as one of Canada’s leading auteurs.

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No. 2 Construction Battalion

The No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) — also known as the Black Battalion — was authorized on 5 July 1916, during the First World War. It was a segregated non-combatant unit, the first and only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history.

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François Bigot

François Bigot, financial commissary of Île Royale 1739–1745, intendant of New France 1748–1760 (baptized at Bordeaux, France on 30 Jan 1703; died at Neuchâtel, Switzerland on 12 Jan 1778). Traditionally, Bigot has been remembered for administrative fraud so massive as to cause the Conquest of New France by the British during the Seven Years' War. His legacy is, however, more nuanced as the colony’s economic issues went far beyond Bigot’s own corruption.

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Viola Desmond

Viola Irene Desmond (née Davis), businesswoman, civil rights activist (born 6 July 1914 in Halifax, NS; died 7 February 1965 in New York, NY). Viola Desmond built a career and business as a beautician and was a mentor to young Black women in Nova Scotia through her Desmond School of Beauty Culture. In 1946, Viola Desmond challenged racial discrimination when she refused to leave the segregated Whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond was arrested, jailed overnight and convicted without legal representation for an obscure tax offence as a result. Despite the efforts of the Nova Scotian Black community to assist her appeal, Viola Desmond was unable to remove the charges against her and went unpardoned in her lifetime. Desmond’s courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination provided inspiration to later generations of Black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada. In 2010, Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis issued Desmond a free pardon. In December 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured by herself on the face of a banknote — the $10 note released on 19 November 2018. Viola Desmond was named a National Historic Person by the Canadian government in 2018.

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Catherine O'Hara

Catherine Anne O'Hara, actor, writer, singer (born 4 March 1954 in Toronto, ON). Catherine O’Hara is one of Canada’s most prominent comedic actors. She is perhaps best known for her work in television on SCTV(1976–79, 1981–83) and Schitt’s Creek (2015–20), as well as for her roles in Home Alone (1990) and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), and her many collaborations with director Christopher Guest. The winner of Emmy, Golden Globe, Gemini, Genie and Canadian Screen Awards, she is an Officer of the Order of Canadaand a member of Canada’s Walk of Fame.

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P.K. Subban

Pernell-Karl Sylvester Subban, MSC, hockey player (born 13 May 1989 in Toronto, ON). P.K. Subban is one of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) elite defencemen. After leading the Belleville Bulls to the Memorial Cup in 2008 and winning the American Hockey League’s President’s Award in 2010, he became a fan favourite with the Montreal Canadiens. A three-time All-Star, he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 2013. He played with the Nashville Predators from 2016 to 2019 before being traded to the New Jersey Devils. Subban won gold medals with Team Canada at the 2008 and 2009 World Junior Hockey Championships and the gold medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. He is also well known for his generous charity work and philanthropy.

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Mark Messier

Mark Douglas “Moose” Messier, hockey player (born 18 January 1961 in Edmonton, AB). A talented forward who played in the National Hockey League (NHL) for 25 seasons, Mark Messier is considered one of the greatest hockey players of all time. He ranks near the top of many regular-season NHL records: third in points (1,887), eighth in goals (694), third in assists (1,193) and second in games played (1,756). He is also second all-time in playoff goals (109), playoff assists (186) and playoff points (295), and fourth overall in playoff games played (236). Famous for his leadership, he captained the Edmonton Oilers, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks. He also won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player with the Oilers in 1990 and with the Rangers in 1992. Messier won six Stanley Cups and received the Conn Smythe Trophyas playoff MVP in 1984. An Officer of the Order of Canada, he has been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and Canada’s Walk of Fame.

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Colored Hockey League

The Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) was an all-Black men’s hockey league. It was organized by Black Baptists and Black intellectuals and was founded in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1895. It disbanded in 1911 and reformed in 1925 but fell apart by the 1930s. Play was known to be fast, physical and innovative. The league was designed to attract young Black men to Sunday worship with the promise of a hockey game between rival churches after the services. Later, with the influence of the Black Nationalism Movement — and with rising interest in the sport of hockey — the league came to be seen as a potential driving force for the equality of Black Canadians. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in honour of the league in January 2020.

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Dakelh (Carrier)

Dakelh, also known as Carrier, are Dene people traditionally occupying areas in north-central British Columbia. The Carrier name derives from the former custom of a widow carrying the ashes of her deceased husband in a bag during a period of mourning, at which time a ceremonial distribution of goods released her of the obligation. The name is also an English translation of Aghele, the Sekani name for Dakelh people. They call themselves Dakelh (people who “travel upon water”), and add the suffixes -xwoten, “people of” or -t’en, “people” to village names or locations to refer to specific groups (e.g., Tl’azt’en, Wet’suwet’en). In the 2016 census, 7,810 people claimed to have Dakelh ancestry.

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William Lyon Mackenzie King

William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada 1921–26, 1926–30 and 1935–48 (born 17 December 1874 in Berlin [Kitchener], ON; died 22 July 1950 in Kingsmere, QC). William Lyon Mackenzie King was the dominant political figure in an era of major changes. He was leader of the Liberal Party from 1919 to 1948, and Prime Minister of Canada for almost 22 of those years. King was Canada’s longest-serving prime minister. He steered Canada through industrialization, much of the Great Depression, and the Second World War. By the time he left office, Canada had achieved greater independence from Britain and a stronger international voice. It had also implemented policies such as employment insurance.

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Jennifer Holness

Jennifer Holness, producer, screenwriter, director (born 1969 in Montego Bay, Jamaica). Jennifer Holness is the president and co-founder of Hungry Eyes Film & Television, which specializes in telling stories that engage with social issues and representations of Black Canadians. Her credits as producer include the award-winning Love, Sex, and Eating the Bones (2003), Home Again (2012), the Gemini Award-winning miniseries Guns (2009) and the award-winning feature documentary Stateless (2020).

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Grant Fuhr

Grant Fuhr, hockey player (b at Spruce Grove, Alta 28 Sept 1962). Grant Fuhr was one of the National Hockey League's best-ever goalies and a member of the outstanding Edmonton Oilers lineup of the 1980s.